What is your purpose here on this Earth? It’s a big question that most of us don’t exactly know how to answer or where to begin. Some people wake up every morning and know exactly why they’ve been placed on this Earth. Others float through their life wondering if there’s any meaning to it all. We want to unpack purpose–its importance, the benefits, and the reasons why some find it, and some don’t. We also want to understand the psychological implications, the health benefits, and the impacts to our health by having a purpose or meaning.
*These are my written answers to the executive’s questions. There is also a podcast based on a related interview on Zoom.
Q (Executive): How would you define purpose?
A (Paul Wong): Purpose can be simply defined as one’s objective, direction, intention, or goal.
Q: What does it mean to live a life of purpose/meaning?
A: To live a life of purpose/meaning means to devote one’s life towards some life goal or ideal.
Q: What does it look like? Feel like? Does everyone have a purpose in life?
A: A purposeful life is like traveling to a destination for your vacation–a destination you have anticipated and planned for with hope and joy. It also is like striving to achieve a dream or mission, with fire in your belly and conviction in your mind, believing that it will make a difference in the world. It feels motivational, energizing, or fully alive. It also feels like having a sense of passion and a sense of significance about one’s life.
Q: Based on your experience – How do people come to realize their purpose – is there a typical path?
A: Yes, everyone has a purpose in life, even though they may not know how to articulate it. One’s purpose is revealed in how they live their life, how they spend their time, and what kind of value they pursue, but not every purpose is meaningful. It is OK not to have a meaningful or worthy purpose, but it would not be the best way to live one’s one and only life on earth. In addition, different people have different ways to discover their life purpose.
- The typical path is to get involved with life and try different things that come their way. It is often though a period of trial and error that one discovers their purpose in life.
- Another typical path is through philosophical reflection on the purpose of human existence–on why we are here.
- The third common way is to examine or reflect on one’s life and discover one’s true self is in terms of one’s core values and beliefs.
- Some people discover their life purpose through the guidance of a mentor, a coach or a self-help book.
- Some people search and discover their life purpose through encountering tragic events or confronting death.
Q: Why is it difficult for people to find their purpose? What are the stumbling blocks?
A: It is never easy for people to find their true purpose in life. It often takes time and patience. The stumbling blocks that prevent people from finding meaning include misguided ambitions, pursuing hedonic pleasure, a nihilistic attitude that life has no meaning, fear of taking risks, not wanting to assume responsibility, and the lack of opportunity.
Q: Why is it important to know your purpose? What specifically are the benefits to having meaning/purpose in life? More Resilience? Health? Stress? Anxiety? Are there any benefits?
A: It is important, because research has revealed many benefits of living a life of meaning and purpose including some of the following (McDonald et al., 2012; Wong, 2014):
- An antidote to anxiety, depression, and stress.
- A source of happiness, wellbeing, and fulfillment.
- Self-actualization through developing one’s potential.
- Self-transcendence in terms of feeling connected with something bigger than oneself.
- Resilience through finding meaning in suffering and facing the terrors of life and death with courage and a defiant attitude.
- Contributing some objective value to society.
Q: Why is it so hard for so many people to find purpose? What are the common missteps that people experience when trying to uncover their meaning?
A: It is so hard for many people to find one’s true meaning in life because of the stumbling blocks mentioned above. Everyone has some idea of what meaning in life is all about, because they often dismiss a job, marriage, or life as “meaningless” because it fails to meet their own criterion of what is meaningful. Deep down, they know that anything in life is meaningful when it is satisfying, leading to something of value, serving some purpose, or making sense to them, but they don’t want to take the responsibility and effort to discover what is meaningful to them. In fact, it’s not hard to find meaning in life, if they can believe that every life has inherent value and meaning, by virtue of its capacity to grow, bear fruit and serve some purpose. Belief or faith in meaning is a very important facilitator in one’s search for meaning.
Q: Are there specific use cases or examples where you’ve seen people with no sense of meaning/purpose, find purpose and meaning and incorporate it into their life? What are the results?
A: Here are some common missteps or misconceptions in one’s search for meaning:
- They think that they can figure out everything in their head without getting involved with life.
- They have the wrong idea of equating meaning with worldly success and happiness.
- It’s wrong to think that there’s only one way to find meaning. There are in fact many ways to experience meaning in life from appreciating the gift of life & the beauty of nature, to helping someone in need and creating something beautiful or useful. Frankl (1985) proposed three pathways to meaning. Wong (1998) identified 7 sources of meaning.
- They falsely believe that happiness automatically leads to meaning; they don’t believe that suffering or sacrifice is necessary.
Example of people with no sense of meaning–they spend all their time eating, drinking, having fun and sleeping, because they don’t need to work.
Result–a life of boredom and emptiness with no contribution to society. Worse still, when they lose everything they depend on for happiness because of trauma or COVID-19, they no longer have any meaning for living.
Example of people with a sense of meaning– a starving artist who does all kinds of part time jobs but keeps on painting and pursuing their idea as an artist. The best example is Vincent van Gough.
Result– a meaningful life, even in times of difficulties and suffering. There is intrinsic meaning and value in living according to the vertical dimension of meaningfulness.
Q: What advice would you give to people who don’t feel they have or need a purpose?
A: My advice for people who don’t feel they need a purpose:
- All the research and scientific evidence shows that the pursuit of meaning is the best way to lead a good life. To recognize meaning is the become aware of the vertical dimension of life. It is like Pascal’s wager you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by gambling your future on believing that there is meaning in life rather than alternative that there is no meaning in life.
- You see or discover what you are looking for. If you look for meaning in life, you will discover it everywhere. Your belief decides your perception and your reaction to trauma.
- Whether you believe in meaning or not, the surest way to self-actualization is discover your destiny, what you were meant to be. You are actually living a meaningful life if you discover your gift and develop it and use it for the common good. Thus, Pablo Picasso says that “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
- Don’t be afraid to take risks, go though failure, or make sacrifices. You will feel fully alive and excited when you find something worth suffering and worth dying for.
Q: Do you have any relevant data/results that would point to the benefits of having a meaning or purpose? Are there any quantifiable upsides? Does having a meaning/purpose improve any health benefits (mental or physical)? Does having meaning make suffering / setbacks easier? How so? In an age of increased Mental Health Problems and Anxiety and Relational Trauma – Does Purpose help solve for any of those areas? Can you provide any examples of this?
A: Pursuing a meaningful goal often involves setbacks, failures, and suffering. That is because a truly worthwhile life goal is rarely a low-hanging fruit; it demands hard work, discipline, and perseverance to achieve it. The struggle is also necessary because of or personal limitations, human evils, and unexpected disruptions of life, such as war, natural disasters, and the pandemic.
In the age of COVID-19, almost everyone experienced additional anxiety and pressure, resulting in an increase of mental health problems.
However, as I have argued in my recent book and webinars, we can grow through the pandemic. COVID-19 offers us a rare opportunity for awakening and personal growth:
Awakening–When the world is turn upside down, when all the familiar things we depend on for our happiness and identify are taken away, we are forced to reflect on the meaning of life: What is life all about? Who am I? Where am I here? The existential crisis triggers a search for meaning and the eventual discovery of one’s life purpose.
Personal growth–When we explore new ways to overcome our obstacles, setback, and painful emotions, we develop strengths and virtues which makes us better people.
Examples of practical advice that I provide during my clinical practice sessions (my clients come from a diverse background, ranging from teenagers, ordinary middle-aged couples, to successful executives):
- Welcome to the club, we all experience anxiety.
- The best way cope with inevitable suffering is not to avoid it, but to confront and embrace it. This will make your stronger. Courage is like a muscle–the more your use it, the stronger you get.
- Be grateful for the opportunity to examine and change your life. You can also be grateful for the gift of life. As long as you can breath, there is hope. Both gratitude and hope are effective in lifting up your spirit.
- You are responsible for your healing and thriving. I can offer professional help, but you have work on deciding your future direction and setting immediate goals.
- Your life will get better if you collaborate with me to improve your life. For example, if you set your sights on a worthy or meaningful goal and strive towards it everyday, you will be able to get out of your rut, transform your life, and create a better future.
As a meaning therapist, I usually work within three frameworks:
- The PURE definition of meaning – Purpose, Understanding, Responsibility and Enjoyment. 4 essential paths to a meaningful life: your Purpose is to serve something greater than yourself (i.e., self-transcendence); you Understand who you are & your place in the world; you are Responsible for improving yourself & following your own destiny; and Enjoy life in all circumstances and have a sense of fulfillment & significance.
- The ABCDE strategy of coping and overcoming trauma or COVID-19: Accept that it is something dangerous but temporary; Believe that we have the capacity to overcome it; Commit to self-improvement and strive towards a goal; Discover that we are stronger than we previously thought; and Enjoy each day.
3) The TRAMMB resilient mindset towards life and the pandemic: Toughness in our thinking and emotions while facing difficulties; Responsibility towards the self and others; Appreciation of life in its totality, grateful for the gift of life and lessons from suffering; Mindful observation of life as it unfolds; Meaning mindset in finding how to do the right thing in each situation; and Belief in the self, in humanity and in God or a Higher Power.
The above three therapeutic frameworks can be found in Wong’s (2016, 2020) recent publications.
- Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
- McDonald, M. J., Wong, P. T. P., & Gingras, D. T. (2012). Meaning-in-life measures and development of a brief version of the Personal Meaning Profile. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 357-382). New York, NY: Routledge.
- Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile. In P. T. P. Wong, & P. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 111-140). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2014). Meaning in life. In A. C. Michalos (Ed.), Encyclopedia of quality of life and well-being research (pp. 3894-3898). New York, NY: Springer. http://www.drpaulwong.com/the-positive-psychology-of-meaning-in-life-and-well-being /).
- Wong, P. T. P. (2016). Integrative meaning therapy: From logotherapy to existential positive interventions. In P. Russo-Netzer, S. E. Schulenberg, & A. Batthyány (Eds.), Clinical perspectives on meaning: Positive and existential psychotherapy (pp. 323-342). New York, NY: Springer.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2020). Made for Resilience and Happiness: Effective Coping with COVID-19 According to Viktor E. Frankl and Paul T. P. Wong. Toronto, ON: INPM Press.
Executive of a Microblogging Company. (2020, September 9). Meaning, Purpose, and Logotherapy interview with Dr. Paul T. P. Wong. http://www.drpaulwong.com/interview-with-an-executive-of-a-microblogging-company